Mohsin Hamid creates a unique refugee story in Exit West. It’s partly delicate but cannot entirely be classified that way since it’s rooted in aggressive, war-torn circumstances. Still, the main characters, Nadia and Saeed navigate life despite the obstacles. And their story is a fully modern romance, however untypical.

Hamid’s writing is like watching a movie with ever so slightly blurred focus. He softens the edges while still packing a gut punch of emotional focus when necessary. Nadia and Saeed seem like two halves to a whole, she the rebellious side with he as the more compliant and quiet type. They’re complementary while being wholly individual.

Just as they develop a rhythm in their relationship, the world turns upside down with rebels wreaking havoc through their unnamed city. Hamid portrays the fear, difficulty trusting new friends, and the incredible sadness of a life plan stolen away.

At this point, Hamid inserts an element of magical realism. It’s not overwhelming, but suspending disbelief is necessary. I generally like a bit of unreality mixed in with hard, cold facts. So, this device just amplified the story for me, rather than upsetting its delicate balance.

My conclusions

I listened to Exit West on audiobook, with excellent narration from the author. I’m generally not a fan of author narrations, but he does a terrific, nuanced job.

I love Nadia’s rebellious fierceness and the way it contrasts to Saeed’s gentle, faithful nature. They both grow and change in Exit West, which is quite logical in their complex circumstances. Hamid conveys their emotions in detail, so readers slide beneath their skin for a few hours. To me, this is the whole point of books. I want to experience another person’s circumstances, and therefore gain empathy and understanding of a larger world than my own.

This book is short but mighty. It is quiet but still intense. I recommend it for the unique combination of literary fiction, romance, and magical realism.

Pair with Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys or The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clementine Wamariya, two completely different refugee books.